A Travellerspoint blog


To Mashhad (مشهد)

The Pilgrim's Desert Road

sunny 35 °C

After frolicking with camels in the oasis of Garmeh, at about midnight we jumped on a bus packed full of old Chadored women going to Mashhad, Shi'a Islam's holiest site.

The bus was very hot and sweaty (which is expected), and full of angry women who had shouting matches with the conductors about where we should sit. You see, unrelated men and women aren't allowed to sit together. But we weren't placed together anyway, so I have no idea what it was on about (It might have been because we were placed at the back of the bus, which is usually only for women). Anyway, after some seat juggling after the bus had left, we we're on our way along a small and dark desert road (which was actually good, all the roads in Iran are good quality, even ones in random places. Much better than Turkish roads).

After 12 or so hours on a cramped bus, we arrived in Mashhad and were picked up by the usual taxi hawks, who this time drove us around expensive hotels hoping that we'll stay in them so he can get his commission. He didn't understand that we wanted something cheap, but after wasting some time, we got a fairly good deal on a dirty room.

There's not much for us too see in Mashhad, since the Shrine to Imam Reza (the biggest religious building in the world, and also the biggest business conglomerate in Iran: they own lots other factories and businesses) is mostly closed off to non-muslims. The main shrine itself was built by Timur's daughter-in-law, and is prelly large, and still being expanded on now.

The Shi'a Imam Reza was betrayed and killed by the Sunni Caliph Ma'mun in 7-hundreds AD, and since he is a (Shi'a) Islamic Superman (direct decendant of Mohammed), he became a super-martyr, so 12 million people a year visit the shrine. But I have yet to see any tourists that aren't Iranian or Arab.

Anyway, we tried to sneak in. We had already been turned away before by the muslim-checkers at a shrine in Shiraz, so we decided to be more discreet. No cameras (they weren't allowed anyway), no bags (not them either, there was a bomb here a few years ago), and dour faces (a devout Shi'a is never happy. Their main religious holiday is called Ashura, commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, and they whip themselves with chains to draw blood).

The muslim-checkers must have been too busy praying though, because no one looked at us twice. The shrine was a very surreal experience, to say the least. The buildings were very nice, the usual giant intricately tiled archways, and inside were mirrored tiles, brightly illuminated with white and the occasional green neon light.

It was the people there that really shocked me. They were kissing and running their hands over every bit of the shrine, pushing to get to a large silver cage in the middle of the room. Many were crying and some shouting in grief (We were, of course, in the men's section, but I could hear some women wailing as well). It was more serious and sombre than dramatic, but very surreal. I mean, it was just a guy who died 1300 years ago. Sure he was martyred, but I really cannot empathise at all with anything they are feeling.

The people were arranged in concentric circles: outside you had people praying on the carpets, a bit closer you had people chanting the Qu'ran, and at the closest level to the tomb you had those reaching for the tomb, wanting to kiss and cry over the the cage containing a fallen martyr.

After witnessing the grief, we walked around the complex for a while, trying to avoid the muslim-checkers (I have no idea what would have been done to us if we were found. They take their religion very seriously). But to be honest, the pilgrims were pretty multicultural. Lots of Arabs (probably Iraqis, lots of Azari Turks (they have distinctive funny hats), and a few Turkmen (who look slightly similar to me, so thats probably why no-one asked me). All the women were in black chadors. Most people were either too busy praying or trying to reach the shrine to look at us anyway.

I have never seen such religious devotion or a show of religious feeling such as this before. It was very disturbing and I felt quite out of place, I didn't really see what they saw in the shrine.

Very wierd. There's not much else to do in Mashhad, and we're heading off to Turkmenistan in two days, back to the godless lands. Finally.

Posted by Nomadics 12:49 Archived in Iran Tagged backpacking

Garmeh (گرمه)

Into the Dasht-e-Kavir

sunny 45 °C

Having heard several reports of a great homestay in the tiny oasis village of Garmeh, we decided to stop there on the way to Mashhad. The Tehrani artist Maziar (whom we didn't meet since his wife was having a baby in the city) returned to his 400-year old family home in a small village deep in the salt deserts of central Iran to escape the pollution and commotion of Tehran and to set up a charming travellers' lodge. Only 250 people or so call Garmeh home but from walking around the oasis I would have put the number closer to 20 - a very, very quiet place. The house was built in the traditional desert style, with mud bricks, low ceilings and many vents to let the air circulate. The atmosphere was extremely liberal here (by Iranian standards) - no headscarves for the women and we didn't have to get fully dressed just to have a shower in the morning! The food was delicious here, although it was still too early for local produce (although noon temperatures averaged around 35C in the shade); and everyone slept on the floor.

Having explored the village (which involved avoiding the local rabid dog, and almost losing my shoe in the road which had melted into a very sticky paste) we hopped into what might have been the most clapped-out Paykan in Iran and headed to the salt flats. Here, the desolation was absolute - not a plant or animal for miles around, as you can see in the pictures. Somehow, there was water underneath the compacted salt, and we're not too sure from where it came. Keeping Anton and I company were a group of three French tourists (one of whom had come along the Silk Road from China...) and a couple of dead camels. After an uneventful sunset we headed back to Garmeh for some delicious fruity rice, salad and yoghurt but not after being stopped by the police - presumably because they were curious as to how a piece of scrap metal could move so fast.

The following day we explored a mountain village (made more atmospheric by some Iranians making animal noises in the distance) and after lunch and a siesta we left for the sand dunes and had a go at riding some camels. I would suggest that if anyone ever considers riding a camel they should think again. And again. The camels were uncomfortable, very smelly and had a bad temper...it's no wonder that in the days of the Silk Road traders would always walk alongside their camels.

Having returned to the hotel we met an Australian journalist who had authored most of the Lonely Planet travel guide we have been using in Iran. Apart from learning about the whole guide-writing process and other aspects of Iranian culture, we were asked to write a short report of our upcoming border crossing into Turkmenistan. Perhaps a tentative step into a future career?

Posted by ameurice 11:38 Archived in Iran Tagged backpacking

The Desert

Photo time!

This is where we stayed in Garmeh, it was prety cool:

The salt plains were lethal. The camel could have been there for years, just the salt preserved it:

The long road ahead:

Thats it for now. Enjoy.

Posted by Nomadics 04:57 Archived in Iran Tagged photography

Yazd (یزد) II

Towers of Silence and Alexander's Prison

sunny 35 °C

To round off our stay in Yazd, we visited the ominously-named Towers of Silence in the desert suburbs of the city itself. These two wide stone towers were built on two opposing hills between which there were ruins of a small Zoroastrian settlement. Having been advised that this place was about as silent as a motocross dirt-track could get we were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves completely alone. Ever since the dawn of Zoroastrianism (or rather Mazdaism - c. 1500 BC) and up until the 1960s, the dead were placed in the towers for the vultures to pick their bones clean. Supposedly burying pollutes the earth and cremation the atmosphere and so this curious method was chosen. A priest would stand by the body until the eyes were picked out - if the right eye was first eaten by the vultures omens were good, if the left was picked first eternal torment would await the soul...

Alexander's Prison, despite the mysterious name, is in fact a simple well in a simple well which might or might not have been used by Alexander the Great as a dungeon for his enemies. Anyway, the name keeps bringing the tourists...Souvenir-wise I bought some Iranian music as well as a mourning flag dedicated to one of the Emams - the mourning of long-dead religious figures is big business here in Iran. In the evening we treated ourselves to some delicious Fesenjun, a dish consisting of meatballs in a pomegranate and walnut sauce - and a welcome change from the usual Iranian 'pizza'.

The morning after we boarded the bus to Khur, deep in the Dasht-e-Kavir salt desert...

Posted by ameurice 04:27 Archived in Iran Tagged backpacking

Yazd (يزد)

The Burning Heart of Zoroastrianism

We made our escape to Yazd by a long and boring bus ride through the desert (one of them, and our first of many), to the aincient town of Yazd. The signs say it has "the oldest old city" that people still live in, and it is the heartland of Iranian Zoroastrianism, with about 7000 worshippers of Ahuramazda (Coolest name for a god).

We're now staying in the heart of the old city, in a converted traditional family home. There's a nice courtyard and everything. But of course, we're in the basement-dormitory. This place is really expensive. In Iran, most tourist things are expensive.

Wandering around the old city is really nice, and the mud-brick buildings are punctuated by Bagdirs, which are basically large squat towers filled with shelves and holes. It's an old Iranian thing, which acts as basic air conditioning by creating a breeze inside, which is necessary, because this place gets pretty hot. Wandering around you can always orientate the labyrinthine streets by the minarets of the Mosques dotted around the place. As usual the mosques are big, blue and have nice tiles.

One of the big tourist draws of Yazd is the still functioning fire-temple, complete with an eternal flame which has been burning since long before Islam even started (470 AD apparently). Its a small building, and packed full of tourists, and it didn't really seem very genuine. The bookshop sold some of the most boring books ever. I bought "an introduction to Zarathusta" published in 1980 by some Indian guy (they don't sell well). Almost fell asleep reading it.

Having seen the sites of the city, we decided to go out of town to visit a deserted desert village. Unfortunatley, it's so deserted no one ever goes there, so there were no buses, and a taxi would have cost a fortune, se we decided to go to Chak Chak, a Zoroastrian pilgrimmage site. After a minibus and a taxi ride through huge, barren, unromantic desert (it's flat and grey) we reached some small mountains, and nestled in them were some modern looking buildings.

The compound of Chak Chak is a large set of empty buildings and open spaces, which are needed to house the pilgrims that come during the pilgrimage season (apparently they have one). We eventually reached the inner sanctum, and were at first turned away by the old caretaker because there was a genuine Zoroastrain service going on. After some waiting, we want through the bronze doors bearing the likeness of Zoroaster, into a small room with a marble floor. I say room, but it was more like a cliff-face surrounded by a semicircular wall. In the middle there was a burning brazier (but the fire had gone out...) and out of the cliff was dripping holy water.

According to legend when the Arabs invaded, some Zoroastrians hid here, and had no water. The local princess threw her staff against the cliff, and water started to drip out (Chak Chak means "drip drip"). This water is holy, and the pilgrims collect it in empty coke bottles and buckets...

It seemed that there were only about 6 people in the service (I didn't know what they actually did though, we weren't allowed to look). Of the 6 people, 4 were Indians (we helped them with their retro-camera). I have no idea how they communicated though. Oh yeah, we also had to wear funny white hats, that made me look like a chinese takeaway chef.

From all the people we have met, it seems that most learn English from bad American films. A student studying English here at Yazd says that they went through Dumb and Dumber in class, and a restaurant owner learnt by copying Chris Tucker. He could quote most of Rush Hour, unfortunatley, it was incomprehensible. He's not really black enough.

Thats it so far. Soon we'll be heading into the desert, the first of 4 on the trip. (Dasht-e Kavir, Karakum, Kyzyl Kum and the Taklamakan). It's going to be hot.

Posted by Nomadics 11:36 Archived in Iran Tagged backpacking

Shiraz (شیراز)

City of Poetry, Nightingales and Wine

sunny 30 °C

Immediate impressions of Shiraz were of an extremely laid-back provincial city with a pleasant climate (about 30C and very dry). The city was home to many of the greatest Persian poets and consequently attracts thousands to the tombs of both Hafez and Sa'adi. It is difficult to underestimate the importance that poetry plays in Iranian life - a saying goes that every Iranian household should contain first the Qoran and second Hafez's Divan (and many would even place Hafez over the Qoran!) Hafez's tomb was in a calm garden, of which there are many in Shiraz. To illustrate how deeply poetry is ingrained into every Iranian, we met two young conscript soldiers at the tomb who had chosen to spend their day off here, and as we talked with them in the park they compared Hafez to Goethe (unfortunately their English was not great and our Farsi is worse so we didn't really understand what the point was)! It was also in this park that a girl who had been staring at us for half an hour gathered the courage to ask us for our autograph - do we look famous? Having bought a collection of Hafez's work it turned out that Goethe had been heavily influenced by Hafez himself, having written poems addressed to him and even called him his 'twin'.

The Shiraz bazaar is the nicest I have yet seen in Iran, mainly due to its almost comatose approach to buying and selling. The lunch break is about four hours long (11am-15pm) and even during business hours time seems slower inside the bazaar. Unfortunately most of the souvenirs on sale are made in China...it seems that all the handmade prize pieces were in Esfahan (and well out of our budget). Besides the bazaar we managed to walk into a holy shrine (in theory closed to all non-Muslims) which was a splendid sight. Inside what looks like an ordinary mosque, the walls, vaults and arches are covered in thousands of tiny pieces of glass arranged in patterns, reflecting green and red from hidden neon lights. Everything was arranged so as to awe a believer in the presence of God and whichever Imam the shrine is dedicated to. A nearby medressah (Qoranic school) also offered some great views from its roof.

Persepolis - capital of the Achaemenid Empire - was our main reason to visit Shiraz, and so we decided not to take a tour but to get there via public transport for a hundredth of the cost. The site itself was somewhat disappointing in both size and condition and was busy with (mostly Iranian) tourists. It was almost possible, however, to imagine its previous grandeur before Alexander the Great burned the city to the ground... Nearby there were some huge tombs of the various Achaemenid emperors (Darius, Xerxes etc.) cut into the cliff face and surrounded by Zoroastrian symbols which largely made up for the underwhelming Persepolis.

Back in Shiraz, we bumped into exactly the same tourists we had seen in Teheran and Esfahan (there are few tourists in Iran!) including a Polish tour guide with long, blond dreadlocks who stood out just a little bit from the crowd...That evening while walking past the hotel, we witnessed the darker side of Iran: a vicious fight involving people beating each other with sticks turned bloody when a couple of huge knives appeared and someone was stabbed in the face - we didn't stick around to see what happened next. We did, however, notice a mullah (Islamic cleric) and some soldiers walk past as if nothing had happened.

It was also in Shiraz that we met a man called Reza who at first seemed interesting (and normal). He had a Bachelor's degree in English and had family in many places in the world. But when he showed us his pills - "for my nervous problem" - and told us that he was invincible because of the mini-Qoran around his neck (it's true because his mother had told him) we started to back out of the conversation. Nevertheless he followed us to the hotel and after giving us his phone number begged us to call him back later in the week so that we could talk again. Even though we had said goodbye, he followed us into the reception and repeated "Do not forget!" with his eyes wide open and finger pointing - he must have repeated it ten times.

We never called back, but are now safely in Yazd and out of his reach...We hope.

Posted by ameurice 10:41 Archived in Iran Tagged backpacking

Esfahan (اصفهان)

The "Jewel" of Iran

We spent a few days seeing the sights of Esfahan, which were pretty numerous. There was, of course, the Imam square (the locals say its the second biggest square in the world, but its acutally the seventh biggest) and the two amazingly beautiful mosques it contains, the Jameh and Imam mosques. The moonlit picture Alex put up was the front of the Imam Mosque.

They were pretty amazing, the Imam mosque in particular, which was a complex of intricately tiled buildings around a central counrtyard. The main prayer hall, under it's double-decker onion dome, which was built for perfect acoustics so the prayer leader could be heard by everyone in the mosque. Some carpet salesman showed us around showing the stone that was told the faithful whether it was midday, and the mosque's well. (A high-school litrature teacher showed us around another (very similar) mosque).

We also strolled down to the river, which had some apparently old bridges that were glued together with egg white, accoding to a rag salesman (after chatting about mobile phones). The bridges looked brand new though, and we didn't manage to see the bridge that was some say is over 3000 year old.

Just accross the river we tried to find Jolfa, the Armenian quarter of Esfahan. All we found was one random Armenian inscription, a really good and expensive coffee cafe (decent coffee is very, very rare), and some "churches" that looke like mosques with a cheap cross stuck on the dome.

On the last day, we saw some Shah's palace (very small), and some "shaking minarets" (didn't shake very much, although for a small fee, the shaker man let us try to shake them too), and an aincient Zoroastrian fire temple (mostly rubble, but still pretty cool).

Other than the sights, we managed to amuse ourselver by walking around the bazaar, chilling in teahouses, drinking juice as well as trying to avoid the creepy cleaner of our hotel.

After all that, we got on a bus to Shiraz, which was long and unremarkable. Apart from that we saw one of the dirtiest toilets in the world at a service station. Nice.

Posted by Nomadics 20:37 Archived in Iran Tagged backpacking


A couple of pictures


Posted by ameurice 11:03 Archived in Iran Tagged photography

Comic Interlude

Jokes from the Silk Road

Here are some random jokes we have heard so far. Don't hold your breath.

Turkey: (We actually heard no jokes, but this is the closest thing to it)

Practical joke: Guy runs in to the building and shouts "SALAAM ALEYKUM" as loud as he can. Everyone jumps, then laughs. (It means "peace be upon you"). Hur hur.

Iran: (Most Iranian humour is based on stereotypes of where people are from)

People from Qazvin are apparently all gay:
- In Qazvin, when people drop their wallets, they don't pick it up.
- Why does no one in Qazvin pass their exams?
They're too scared to pick up their exam papers.

People from Esfahan are stingy:
- When an Esfahani's house was on fire, he texted the fire department to call him back.
- When an Esfahani student's pen finishes, he graduates.

People from Rasht are promiscuous:
- When a Rashti's wife got pregnant, he went around and thanked the whole town.
(This joke is "very dirty" by Iranian standards...)

Thats about it.

Posted by Nomadics 09:00 Archived in Iran Tagged tips_and_tricks

Into the Belly of the Beast

From Tehran to Central Iran

overcast 23 °C

Eventually, we made it out of Tehran and took a bus south, to the small town of Kashan (کاشان), This town was apparently so beautiful, that Shah Abbas I (Abbas the Great) wanted to be buried here.

Well. It wasn't that beautiful. Most of the city seems to rubble. When you walk onto the small streets, there are just ruins of old buildings with graffiti on them. We walked onto the grounds of a mosque, and some old man tried to chat to us. Unfortunately we were mutually unintelligible. So he decided to walk around up and down and have us follow him. We made our escape.

Later that night, I drew a crowd at a juice shop. I have no idea why, or what they the hell were talkling about, but one of them seemed to like touching me, and it was all very funny (to them).

After a particularly dirty bed, we went to the part of town where which is apparently beautiful. The old buildings were actually very nice (one was so pimped out it deserved to be on MTV Cribs), but they seemed brand new, and in fact, one was being built while we were there, much to the dismay of the builders. The houses all had large, roomy courtyards, with ponds in the middle, and were deceptively big. And as usual, there was a lot of elaborate tiling and shiny mirror pieces.

Anyway, after the houses, we took a bus to Esfahan (اصفهان) the capital of the old Persian Empire (that was actually this morning). That was after a taxi ride to the bus station, where the taxi driver tried to dance whilst driving, and gave us a cucumber each. I guess it was a reward for putting up with his driving. Or dancing. Either way I got a cucumber.

Esfahan seems very tourist friendly, and has a massively different atmosphere to Tehran. Much mre relaxed and friendly. In th 5 or so hour that we have been here, already two Iranians have come up just to chat. One worked in a carpet shop and showed us around the incredible Imam Mosque (it is amazing, a massive complex covered in really elaborate tiles), he did lead us to his shop and we were shown some incredible Qom silk carpets, but the guy really wasn't pressing any sales (he seemed depressed), and the carpets were way out of our price range. The other was just a student who wanted to practice his english (which was actually pretty good), and we talked about everything from football to politics to university.

Posted by Nomadics 22:35 Archived in Iran Tagged backpacking

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